Sonja Hillgren Obit


Remembering Farm Writer Sonja Hillgren

Sonja Hillgren

PHILADELPHIA (Dec. 19, 2006) -- Sonja Hillgren, 58, a nationally reknown journalist who covered Washington farm policy for nearly three decades and whose byline became a household name during the 1980s farm crisis, died of a brain tumor at her home in Philadelphia.

Beginning in 1996, Hillgren served as editor of Farm Journal magazine and more recently as vice president of editorial for Philadelphia-based Farm Journal Media, the nation's largest circulation farm magazine publisher with three magazine titles and a combined circulation of more than 800,000.

During her distinguished career, Hillgren studied at Harvard University as a Nieman Fellow and served in many leadership posts in professional journalism organizations, including as president of the 4,500-member National Press Club in Washington, D.C., and the North American Association of Agricultural Journalists.

But it was during the farm financial crisis of the early 1980s that Hillgren, then the beat reporter responsible for covering Washington-based agricultural news for United Press International, first established herself as the nation's premiere farm writer.

At one point, Hillgren rode in the tractorcade with farm protestors who later encamped on the Mall, just outside the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Often she was the last person in the press gallery watching congress debate critical farm legislation, as Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., noticed after the 2 a.m. finish to the 1996 Farm Bill.

"No woman, and perhaps no individual, has written and edited more copy about American agricultural policy than Sonja Hillgren has during the years that I have served on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Commission," Lugar once said in a tribute.

Clayton Yeutter, a former Secretary of Agriculture and U.S. Trade Ambassador, credited Hillgren as having a role in framing the debate over farm policy over the past several decades. "At all times, she had the long-term best interest of American farmers at heart, even when her articles generated controversy," he added.

While at Farm Journal, Hillgren personally created an annual forum in Washington, D.C. that attracted an impressive list of who's who in agriculture. Every Secretary of Agriculture since the Forum's inception has spoken at the event, as have U. S. Trade Representatives, Senators and Congressmen from both sides of the aisle, and CEOs from many of America's largest corporations. The greatest testament to the Forum's stature in agriculture is President George W. Bush chose this event in 2001 -- only two months after 9/11 -- to make his first major address on agriculture.

Sonja D. Hillgren was born to Ralph O. and Priscilla A. Hillgren in Sioux Falls, S.D., on May 17, 1948. She attended the Sioux Falls public schools and graduated from Washington High School in 1966. She received undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Besides winning a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, she received numerous journalism awards, including an Oscar in Agriculture in 1998 for distinguished service.

Hillgren wrote about agriculture since 1978, first for UPI, and then for Knight-Ridder Newspapers before joining Farm Journal Media. For 10 years, she did radio broadcasts about agriculture on hundreds of radio stations, including National Public Radio. Hillgren appeared on several national television programs.

Hillgren served on the boards of directors of Winrock International, which runs agricultural, energy and other natural resource projects throughout the developing world; and of Philabundance, a Philadelphia regional nonprofit organization for distributing food to low-income people. She was formerly president of the North American Agricultural Journalists and a member of the American Agricultural Editors' Association, the Farm Foundation, Investigative Reporters & Editors, the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Society of Magazine Editors.

Hillgren is survived by her husband Bruce T. Downs of Philadelphia, a brother John A. Hillgren of Sioux Falls, S.D., and a sister Annette M. Bray and her two children, Jodi Johnson and Tim Snyder, all residing in the Minneapolis area.

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